If you care about food at all (or even if you just happened to catch a recent cable news broadcast), you probably heard about the Stanford University report that was published in the Sept. 4 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine. The report found that organic foods don't necessarily contain substantially more nutrients than non-organic ones. Listening to the way this news was reported, it sounded to me as if the news media saw organics as a fad or as a devious way for farmers to make an extra buck from consumers, which is a horribly offensive suggestion, even if oblique, considering how few farmers feed so many people, how little money they generally earn, and how organic producers tend to be passionate about soil health, clean water and producing delicious food. (If anything, they don't worry enough about their own bottom lines.) Being an organic farmer is much like being a writer; you do it because you love it, because it's your passion, and because you think it matters, not for the big bucks.
Besides being personally offended by the glee with which the mainstream media seemed to report this news, I also find it pretty disingenuous. Here's why:
1. Organic food contributes to a healthier environment for us all — including workers: If the ONLY reason to eat organic food was to prevent millions of pounds of pesticides from making their way into the environment — seeping into our already limited freshwater resources (where we end up drawing our drinking water from, and where the fish that we like to eat breed and spawn) — then that would be enough of an argument for me. Since the natural world supplies everything that keeps us healthy, buying organic to reduce the quantity of chemicals in the environment that we all share seems to be a smart, health-conscious decision. Now move the discussion away from the purely selfish desire to keep our water and soil clean for us and our children and grandchildren, and extend it to the people who pick our food; many of whom are undocumented workers who lack health insurance and whose bodies are exposed daily to very high levels of pesticides.
The question I almost never hear when we speak about organic foods is the one about whether it is fair to expect that those who earn the least, who likely don't have health coverage, who do some of the hardest physical work that still exists in Western societies (picking our food) should shoulder the health burden of constant toxin exposure. It is exceedingly difficult to measure or track the people who pick our food and know what their health impacts are to do longitudinal studies, but we do know what those pesticides do to lab animals, and a whole lot of anecdotal evidence (as well as harder info) about the issue. (You can read a lot more about this subject here.) Remember, even though the levels of pesticides on the food that ends up in our supermarkets might be deemed "safe" by government agencies (see why I question that below), are the people who pick and package it exposed to much higher levels of chemicals? Most certainly.
2. Organic foods contain more micronutrients and phenols:
Back to nutrients and the study. Keep in mind that this recent report only looked at particular nutrients that it was testing for, not all of them. There are a host of compounds besides the vitamins and minerals this study looked at that are all found in higher levels in organic produce, including those that are linked to cancer prevention. "The organic produce ... contained more compounds known as phenols, believed to help prevent cancer, than conventional produce," reported the New York Times. In a 2006 University of Sydney study, micronutrients were found in higher levels in organic produce. According to that study's abstract, "In studies that satisfied the screening criteria, the absolute levels of micronutrients were higher in organic foods more often than in conventional foods comparisons, and the total micronutrient content, expressed as a percent difference, was higher in organic as compared to conventionally grown produce."
3. Organic foods still contain far fewer pesticides than conventional: Nutrients aside, "Over all, the Stanford researchers concluded that 38 percent of conventional produce tested in the studies contained detectable residues, compared with 7 percent for the organic produce," reports the New York Times. As several broadcasters pointed out on CNN and other mainstream news sources, pregnant women are advised to reduce pesticide exposure as much as possible, since there are proven links between the types of pesticides used on produce and lower IQ and birth defects (that is, higher exposure to toxins among pregnant women led to lower IQ and higher numbers of birth defects). And if we know there are definite effects from these chemicals on fetuses, why are the rest of us eating them — and what may the unknown health impacts be?
4. I believe that preventing disease is smarter than treating existing ones: The truth is, we don't know if the increase in cancers of all types, digestive diseases, and other health problems might be connected to the panoply of chemicals that are present in our modern environments. Each of us is a unique human ecosystem, and we are all subject to different chemicals, in varying amounts, throughout our lifetimes. I prefer, when it comes to health issues, to take a precautionary approach. Maybe the chemical soup that we ingest has little effect on whether we get cancer or not (though animal tests tell a different story), but frankly, that's not a risk I'm willing to take. If you are, that's your call — hey, nobody's forcing anyone to eat organic.
5. Organic produce tastes better, which means you'll eat more of it
This is not something that I think we can prove substantively, since taste is a very subjective thing. But I've eaten locally grown, organic produce for most of my life, and to me, there's just no contest. Organic food just tastes better. My lettuce or tomato that's more naturally raised has a flavor that's more nuanced, more layered, more interesting, and more ... alive. This is doubly true for local, fresh, ripe produce; when produce is shipped distances, it often gets more types and quantity of chemicals sprayed on it. Want proof? New York City's best restaurants have been using local, organic produce for 30-40 years — not because their customers demanded it, but because their chefs knew it tasted better.
Since I love to eat, and consider food part of my "medicine" to keep me healthy, I budget higher food prices into my (very modest) budget. Produce is unquestionably the foundation of good health. When you enjoy delicious fruits and veggies because they taste great, then you will keep eating them. That's why taste matters.
At the end of the day, I think spending a little extra money (if you can) to ensure that the food you eat is healthier for the Earth and the people who grow and pick it, and to avoid any potential unknown health threats from pesticides seems like a good deal to me. That it tastes better, is just a bonus.
For a critique of the science behind this study, check out the exhaustive research put together by the Organic Consumer's Association.
What do you think?
Related organic food story on MNN: Our food blogger weighs in